Hear me in conversation with WYPR’s Sheliah Kast, host of On the Record, with calligrapher and artist Parinaz Bahadori about Handel, Rumi, and THE TALE OF SERSE. This is a wonderful in depth 30 minute discussion of the importance of this project.
I’ve always marvelled at the way a piece comes into being. It’s rarely a clear shot from conception to realization. For me this usually means threads, often divergent, of my life and my artistic thinking suddenly coming together in a single project where they deepen the meaning of each other and suggest a third meaning from the unified new whole. This is very much the case with THE TALE OF SERSE.
Handel’s Serse, is never a piece I wanted to do, in fact quite the opposite. I was commissioned by Baldwin Wallace Conservatory to make a staging of a Handel opera, something new for their students and faculty, and they requested Serse since one of the voice faculty felt the title would would be a vehicle allowing the school’s only counter-tenor to shine (in the end this young singer took the role of Arsamene anyway). I tried to beg off, first suggesting ANY other Handel opera rather than Serse (Alcina, Ariodante, Cesare, Orlando…anything other than Serse). This was to no avail, they were set on Serse. Second, even after accepting the gig, I tried to emphasize the challenges of my schedule in hopes they would decide that it was too much trouble and expense to have me. At that time I was also directing a touring production of Cavalli’s La Calisto for English Touring Opera, which would necessitate several flights from Cleveland back to the UK to lead a performance and than returning for rehearsals. My plan didn’t work – they graciously invited me to not only set the schedule I needed, but even paid for some of the flights. I was stuck.
Why didn’t I want to do Serse? Well, Serse is known to most folks in the opera world through the famous Nicolas Hytner ENO production which is set in St James Park by a statue of Handel himself, and with a cast led by Anne Murray and Valerie Masterson. It was a revelatory production, exposing the world to a piece they had forgotten or written off as stuffy. The production was funny, witty, and smart. It also exposed a piece that I would never want to direct. One of the essential things a director of opera needs to learn is what NOT to direct. I’ve made the mistake before or directing repertoire which I knew wasn’t for me just because it was a flashy gig that paid well (Rossini for instance….), and even though I admire Serse as a piece, I realized that it wasn’t very successful as a comedy anyway, and light Handel really isn’t the sort of Handel for me. They insisted, however, and I had promised and didn’t want to let folks done, so I had to find a way in. Luckily, they had told me I could do anything I wanted with the piece, reshape and reconstruct as I saw fit. And that bit at least, was music to my ears.
What interests me about Serse is this: opera in London in the 1730’s was in a real problem spot, not unlike opera today. In the 1728 John Gay’s Beggar’s Opera was premiered and suddenly English audiences realized what opera could be, that is not stuffy, about their own lives and stories, in a language they understood, and not elitist. It changed everything and the theaters dedicated to Italian opera began to fail. Handel being not only a composer but also an impressario certainly felt the pinch. Serse was an attempt to innovate the forms of opera (seria) and try to find something that would appeal to his contemporary audiences. To do this he returned to an early libretto by Minato that had been originally set by Cavalli in the mid 17th century, as well as other composers since. He deconstructed this libretto, deleting and merging characters and bits as well as simplifying the plot. The structure of this older libretto also forced him to write a new type of opera, one with almost no da capo arias, with recitative sections that went in and out of short ariosos. Serse is absolutely unique in Handel’s output, and in opera of that period. There is also one comic character in the opera that must surely have been originally been performed by someone more an actor than a singer. With this character I saw the opportunity to include spoken text to try and tell the story in a new way, and I loved the challenge of turning the smallest character into the largest in this new piece.
I knew that I wanted to simplify Handel’s plot, which though simpler than Cavalli’s, was still a mess of mistaken identities, disguises, and lover’s travails. I’m a great lover of Persian culture and have always loved the Enlightenment Room of the British Museum. This is a room that is curated in a way to reveal how thinkers of Handel’s time would have viewed history. Aztec artefacts sit next to pieces from India, Greece, indigenous new world peoples, etc. It is history viewed simultaneously as a whole and not geographically or chronologically. Handel certainly viewed the world’s cultural wealth in this way as he pulled stories out to set. What was eternal was the human emotional and psychological experience, the when, what, and who mattered little. What would it be, however, to find the Persian in this story based on the life of a Persian King, though bearing no trace of or care for historical authenticity.
And then a connection was made. Rumi is a poet that to me, like to a myriad of poetry lovers, means a great deal. I first discovered him by accident when searching for a reading for a marraige. It was the only thing read at that ceremony, and then after that I purchased a book of Rumi for the first anniversary (paper afterall). In the month before preparing this project the couple had decided it was best to separate, and in the pain of that process, turned to Rumi for solace. Of course a central piece of Rumi is the idea of leaning IN to suffering, allowing pain to be the crucible that teaches to soul to learn more, to leave deeper. Rumi says it best when he say:
You’ve been walking the ocean’s edge,
Holding up your robes to keep them dry.
You must dive naked under and deeper under,
A thousand times deeper. Love flows down.
Or when he says:
Longing is the core of mystery.
Longing itself brings the cure.
The only rule is “suffer the pain”.
Your desire must be disciplined,
And what you want to happen
In time, sacrificed.
Here for me is the essential connection between Handel’s opera(s) and Rumi. Baroque opera, largely, held to the rule of a lieto fine (or happy ending). After great trials, the essence of the form was predicated on the idea that things could be made right, that people could be better, that ways can be mended, or in the words of “The Kite Runner”: “there is a way to be good again”. This conceit is often difficult to contemporary audiences, as we live in an age of irony and cynicism. Its easier to laugh at these ending then to allow the soul to be touched by them, which is somehow frightening. As an artist I’m rather an optimist, a naive optimist, and that’s why these dramatic forms speak to me. Serse is at root about learning that love need not be reciprocal, that suffering loss and jealousy leaves room for greater waves of love and depth of feeling. And here too is the core message of Rumi. The making of this piece started merely with the connection of the great Persian poet and a plot ostensibly built around a historical king, but it ended up at a meeting of philosophical aesthetics, and aesthetic philosophies.
As is always the case, Rumi puts it best:
But why should I tell you their love stories,
When you may spill them together like blood in the dirt?
Because a great mutual embrace
Is always happening between the eternal
And what dies, between essence and accident.